Friday, August 17, 2012

More Rawlsian Thought Experiments: An Inverse Income Voting System

(For some unknown reason, re-reading Rawls stimulates my weird idea generator. Another politically impossible proposal here, presented as a thought experiment)

[Update 25 August 2012: see the more detailed discussion of this proposal here]

Thinking about the difference principle today, it occurred to me that most of the discussion on the topic tends to be overly focused on the economic institutions that would ensure that the least advantaged group in society would fare best. Yet the difference principle is not restricted in its application to economic inequalities; in fact, the principle specifies that inequalities of authority and political power must also be justified to the worst off group in society: “[t]he second principle applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of institutions that make use of differences in authority and responsibility” (§11, p. 53, emphasis mine). Is a standard democratic system – with its panoply of elections, constitutional protections, and so on –justified in those terms? Rawls seems to assume so, even though standard democratic institutions entail clear inequalities in authority and responsibility which are not obviously to the maximum benefit of the worst off.

Moreover, to the extent that Rawls discusses the connection between political and economic inequalities, he tends to think of the direction of causation as going from economics to politics. Unjustifiable political inequalities in authority and responsibility (as, for example, when the rich have undue influence in the political process) would be remedied, in his view, once objectionable economic inequalities are taken care of, which seems reasonable enough; after all, he notes, such inequalities are correlated with one another (§16, p. 83). With low levels of economic inequality, widely dispersed ownership of the means of production, and a healthy dose of public campaign finance, Rawls argues, whatever differences in authority and responsibility political institutions would still produce would be justifiable to the least advantaged (cf. §13, p. 71, §36, p. 198).

But why wait until such inequalities are fully remedied? Imagine that instead of the standard, one person, one vote system, we had a voting system where the poorest person with any income got 1 vote, the person with twice the income of the poorest person got ½ a vote, and a person with 20,000 times the income of the poorest person got 1/20,000th of a vote. “Income” here includes any government transfers; people with no income would have 1 vote, just as the poorest people with any income. The specific value of the vote would be linked to the income records on file with the national tax agency, and no one could vote who was not linked in some way to the tax system. We might use broad categories instead of specific incomes – say, people making less than $10,000 a year get one vote, people making up to $20,000 half a vote, and so on; and of course we might decide that a different weighting of votes is required. [Update: it occurs to me that using the median income would be easier to set up. For example, voters below the median income each get one vote, voters between the median and twice the median get half, and so on.] Whatever the case, poorer people would have more formal influence than richer people.

In a fully income-equal society, everyone would have 1 vote; in an extremely unequal society, the very poorest would have the most political influence. High-flying hedge fund managers with extremely high incomes likely would have an infinitesimal vote, though they would of course still have many means of exercising influence. After all, elections cost money, and the rich are more able to run for election and lobby legislators. But the idea is that the least advantaged groups would have compensating advantages, as politicians would have to cater to the greatest mass of votes; yet these advantages would diminish as transfer payments increased, or society became more equal. Note also that the specific value of a person’s vote would fluctuate throughout their lifetime, being very high when the person is very young or very old, and very low during their peak earning years. (The system might work kind of like an automatic means test for politically distributed benefits, baked right into the political structure).

Would there be anything wrong with this system, from a Rawlsian point of view? Everyone can still vote and run for office, so the first principle of Rawls’ theory - the principle guaranteeing the equal basic liberties - is not overtly violated; and it seems to me that the inequalities of authority and responsibility produced by this system are more clearly justifiable to the worst off group in society than the inequalities produced by a standard democratic system. For one thing, it provides the least advantaged in society with the fair value of their political liberties in a direct, unmediated way that complicated systems of campaign finance cannot match. Moreover, a political system along these lines bypasses the theoretical discussion about which economic system would best produce outcomes in conformity with the difference principle; different proposals can be tried, and if they worsened the lot of the least advantaged, the poor would gradually acquire sufficient political clout to overturn them. (In theory, this is compatible with pure libertarian laissez faire, so long as such laissez faire actually does improve the condition of the least advantaged group).

Like any oddball proposal, this is very likely a bad idea. (I can imagine all kinds of bad incentives to underreport income, for example, and I’m not sure it would fit with the well-entrenched idea that having an equal voice is a mark of respect of equal citizenship.) But I’m curious: are there specifically Rawlsian grounds to reject this sort of system? (I'm sure there are other grounds). And what are the obvious problems I’ve missed in here? Does this lead to a sustainable politico-economic equilibrium, or simply to an intensification of class conflict?

[Update 2, 20 August 2012: fixed some minor typos. Also thought of some further refinements. Suppose we divide the income distribution into N equal quantiles. The voters in the lowest class have one vote, and the voters in the highest class have (1/(N^x)) fractional vote, where x is a parameter determining how extreme the disenfranchisement of the rich is. When x=0 everyone has one vote, as today; when x=1, the disenfranchisement is strictly proportional to class position, so the each person in the nth quantile has 1/n votes; but we could set x between 0 and 1, leading to a range of different weightings of formal influence for the poorest depending both on the number of "classes" and on the extent of disenfranchisement with income. With few classes and low x, the system is close to our own; with many classes and large x, there is a very steep disenfranchisement curve. What values of these parameters would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance?]


  1. So in practice, when we aggregate into groups (as you at one point suggest), isn't this more or less already the case? E.g., the bottom 99% have 99x the votes as the top 1%.

    1. In practice today the bottom 99% each have one vote, yes, but the wealthy have more influence, at least if you buy the standard stories about campaign finance, lobbying, agenda setting, etc. (about which I think you've written expressing some doubt in the past, if I remember correctly, but which Rawls accepts). So the idea would be to give compensating advantages to voters in the bottom half of the distribution. On aggregate, the bottom 50% of voters would here have more than 50% of the voting power. In fact, in an extreme version of the proposal, given enough inequality, the poorest 10% might have the majority of all votes.

  2. You ask whether there are specifically Rawlsian objections to this. It depends partly, it seems to me, on how R. defines the details of "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible w a similar system of liberty for all." (TOJ, 1st ed, p.302) I forget whether he says anything specific about voting, but i think it's not clear that b/c everyone can still vote and run for office, the 1st principle is not violated. Note also btw that the final version of the difference principle in 1st ed of TOJ (p.302) refers to "social and economic inequalities" and does not include the language you highlight in the first paragraph. (I only have the first ed. of TOJ to hand.)

    1. LFC, Rawls does consider potential restrictions on the one person, one vote principle (as I discovered after writing this post), and justifies them by appealing to the difference principle; see my follow-up post here I am not sure that this particular sort of restriction would be justified, though it is a bit like "affirmative action," which Rawls countenanced.